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Lowe: Blending Wisdom And Capital

When Brian Lowe was a young man looking to sell his Nova Scotia environmental services companies, he had two offers on the table.

In the end, he sold to Laidlaw Environmental Services of South Carolina because Laidlaw was able to offer cash and, as Lowe’s mentor, John Lindsay Sr., advised, “Cash is king.”

Working alongside Lindsay, the man behind Halifax’s Purdy’s Wharf development, Lowe went on to start another environmental services company with international reach.

Now 59, he is one of Atlantic Canada’s most experienced entrepreneurs and business mentors. In 2005, he co-founded the First Angel Network, the region’s largest association of private investors.

He has raised millions for startups and taken technologies to market internationally, resulting in mergers and acquisitions. In 2000, he co-founded ImmunoVaccine Technologies Inc., raising startup funding of $10 million. ImmunoVaccine is now a publicly traded company working on cures for cancer and infectious diseases.

ImmunoVaccine was Lowe’s last real startup. Now, his business life is two-pronged. As a shareholder in more than 30 ventures, he works hard to identify those startups that will be profitable, as well as the two out of every 10 that typically fail.

As a mentor, he helps young entrepreneurs in their struggles to find funding and staff. His many advisory roles include entrepreneur-in-residence at Dalhousie University.

“I’ve always been one to build something from scratch,” Lowe said as he relaxed in First Angel’s new offices in Halifax’s Historic Properties.

“In early startup companies, I get motivated by the people, the excitement and the accomplishment of seeing businesses grow.

First Angel “has 20 companies in the portfolio and I invest in each. We try to eliminate the two failures through good due diligence.”

The network considers the merits of 15 young companies every quarter but only one is introduced to its members as an investment opportunity.

“We keep the bar high,” Lowe said. “It takes a long time to get a company going. It always takes longer and more money than you think.”

Born in London, Ont., Lowe decided to make Nova Scotia his home at the age of 18, after enrolling in business administration at Saint Mary’s University and meeting his wife, British-born, Jane.

He feels a debt of gratitude to Lindsay, who acted as chairman of Lowe’s environmental services companies between 1984 and 1992, while Lowe was president and CEO.

“John taught me how to manage a business through cash flow, for instance, by leasing equipment as opposed to purchasing, and to always be responsible for managing the bottom line profitably, while at the same time motivating a team and treating that team as though they are family,” Lowe said.

“John taught me a lot around the art of negotiating. He taught me the importance of being able to make a decision and surrounding yourself with good, capable people.”

Although his 60th birthday is looming, Lowe has no intention of slowing down.

“I’m on many boards, so time management is key. I take time in evenings and weekends to meet with young entrepreneurs. I devote off-hours to (First Angel). I’m a workaholic — an essential quality in an entrepreneur.”

He advises young entrepreneurs to focus on building the right team.

“It can be a challenge, but chemistry among the team is vital and so is having everyone buy into the vision.”

Entrepreneurs must also make sure to develop their business even while they raise money.

“It’s essential to manage people well and to get to market. Getting to revenue is key for any startup.”

Atlantic Canadians are developing more of a can-do attitude as they build new sectors like biotech, life sciences and information and communication technology, he said.

“It’s very healthy. There’s nothing wrong with wealth creation. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit and building a business.”

Lowe said Atlantic Canadian startups are burgeoning in number and he predicts they will soon see improved access to capital. The new regional venture capital fund, launching next year, is a boon.

“Entrepreneurship is becoming more of a focus with youth. There will be more startups and more exits, like those of Q1 Labs, Radian6, Go Instant and Ocean Nutrition. The success of existing companies will lead to more mentoring.”

He also feels confident that Atlantic Canadians will learn to act as a region.

“It’s happening,” he said with characteristic positivity. “Provincial barriers are coming down and there’s more interaction among business people. We will see more pooling of resources on a regional level.”

Lowe offers four tips for investors looking to invest in early stage companies:

•Take the time to do due diligence on each prospect before investing. This includes ensuring that both you and the management team understand the sector.

•Ensure that patented IP rests with the company and not the founder or inventor, so that wealth can be built within the company.

•Look for a strong management team with a proven record. The team is even more important than the technology as it’s the people that execute and execution is a team effort.

•Look for a sound business model that’s anchored in reality. To succeed, technology must solve a problem for clients, so the idea must be validated by early market research. A company should either be well funded or able to get to revenue quickly.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of our profiles of key people in the Atlantic Canadian Startup Community. The Entrevestor Profile will appear regularly on our site.